Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Bluebeard’s Secret Key

So I’ve been wrestling with the tale of Bluebeard recently.

Serial wife-murder. Clearly from Forn Parts. Just in time for Christmas.

In case you’re not up on your psychosexual fairy tales, Bluebeard goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the youngest daughter in a family gets married off to a vaguely creepy dude because he has a lot of money. He also has a blue beard, which rather than being punk aesthetic is supposed to be a red flag of “something’s off about this guy,” but both the girl and her family ignore it because of the fat stacks of cash Bluebeard brings to the marriage. Once married, Bluebeard takes the girl back to his castle and presents her with a charmingly sadistic conundrum: He’s leaving, he says, on a trip. She is welcome to go in any of the rooms in castle, except one, for which he has specifically given her a key which she is not to use. He leaves and she wanders around in the rich castle, and eventually her curiosity overwhelms her and she enters the forbidden room. Turns out the room is filled with all the corpses of Bluebeard’s murdered former wives. (The faux loyalty test begs the question of Bluebeard’s first wife, of course. How did that one come about? Random murder? Her discovering some other dark secret of his? A stash of tentacle porn?)

Bluebeard gives his wife the key: engraving by Walter Crane in 1874

Anyway, in different versions of the tale, various things happen that make it impossible for the girl to conceal the fact that she’s found the body-locker: either she drops the key and it gets stained with blood, or the key starts bleeding and won’t stop, or she’s been entrusted an egg* rather than a key, and that gets stained with blood… whichever happens, Bluebeard comes back, finds out, flies into a rage, and decides he must kill the girl. She asks to go pray before her inevitable death, and in reality runs upstairs and screams for her brothers to come rescue her. They find her before Bluebeard can kill her, and justice is served, i.e. Bluebeard winds up dead in his own body locker in some versions, and tossed out to the carrion birds in other versions.

Obviously, Disney gave this one a pass.

Bruno Bettleheim, a Freudian scholar, says that the girl entering the forbidden room is a bit like losing one’s virginity: an act that “sullies” the girl (or the symbol of her sexuality, the key/egg) and cannot be undone. The body locker is supposed to represent a terrible sexual secret of Bluebeard’s. In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, he says:

However one interprets “Bluebeard,” it is a cautionary tale which warns: Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed. (p. 302)

I’d like to note that not only is this a destructive image for women (“Even if you are married, you may not have sexual curiosity; you will die.”) but a terrible image for men as well. Bluebeard is has not only closeted his sexuality, he has expressed sexual passion in the form of hacking up women. The message, easily passed over in favor of looking at the role of the girl, is that men’s sexuality can only be expressed in the form of violence.

Bettleheim also points out that neither Bluebeard nor the girl have undergone any kind of character development–“Earth-shaking events have taken place in the story and nobody is the better for them.” (p. 303) I think he’s got a mighty interesting point there. This isn’t really a story about people, at least, it doesn’t work like the rest of fiction in terms of having a character arc. It’s a fable. Fables supposedly serve a different psychological purpose, and there’s a lot of debate as to what that purpose is.

I’ve been reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves, and she has an entirely different take on the Bluebeard tale. Feminist scholar Marcia Lieberman notes that Bluebeard’s wife is the ultimate “damsel in distress” who is reactive and passive in the face of her own death and waits for her borhters to swoop in and rescue her. Estes says that this tale is less about her being helpless, and more about initiation through confrontation with the predator… “finally cutting down and rendering neutral the natural predator of the psyche.” (p. 61)

Estes sees the brothers rescuing the girl at the end not as literal, but as her animus aspect come to save the day. The animus**, Estes reminds us, is “a partly moral, partly instinctual, partly cultural element of a woman’s psyche that shows up in fairy tales and dream symbols as her husband, son, stranger, and/or lover […] invested with qualities that are traditionally bred out of women, aggression being one of the more common.” (p. 58) She says the tale is actually about the woman tapping into her animus in order to find the necessary agency to get out of a predator/prey situation. Never mind that the animus seems to be where she keeps all her agency…clearly this is not a self-actualized heroine if she doesn’t yet realize she can save herself. To be fair, many women don’t realize that. They may need to access heretofore untapped bits of their psyches to get out of being “prey”. As Estes states, “Many women’s alacrity and fighting natures are not as close to consciousness as is efficient.” (p. 57) Certainly Bluebeard is a horrible story…and it is terrible to think about all the time that it might be psychologically acted out in real life.

By "body locker" we mean "unfair divorce settlement."

So…in conclusion, I’m not sure what to think of Bluebeard. Is it a tale that stunts men’s and women’s psychic growth by having a backward, sex-negative view of sexuality? Is it a tale about naive women finding agency and escaping the victim role? My answer is a tentative yes to all. Also, I wish the girl had a name. It’s terribly hard to write an article about a nameless protagonist.

What do you think?


*The egg variant comes from the Grimm tale “Fitcher’s Bird”, which is very similar but with more wizards and dismemberment, and the girl has more agency in rescuing herself.

**I don’t think Jung’s animus/anima concept is jiggy with there being more than two genders, therefore I am less than jiggy with it. That being said, it’s still a useful idea. Example: The reason why the Manic Pixie Dream Girl bothers me so much is that she’s not a real woman, she’s the personified anima of the hero. If the Handsome Prince is the personified animus of the heroine in fairy tales, then perhaps that’s why he bothers me, too. He’s not a real person, either.


  1. I had had some of the same thoughts about this story, and I’m glad to hear yours. I’d like there to be psychological archetypes that aren’t based on a binary gender system, too.

    I also get what you mean about the prince not being a real person. I always had that sense but never articulated it.

    Also, I think that “jiggy with” should show up more in literary discourse.

  2. I am glad you are writing about this. I love WWRWTW, and yet you raise some good questions about its Bluebeard story.

    Also, you could never be a nameless protagonist. Reason #6,208 why you are awesome.

    • Anne Bean

      March 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm

      “Also, you could never be a nameless protagonist.”
      aawwww…thanks, Kat. That’s a fantastic compliment.

  3. I read Bettleheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” in high school and I must say he completely lost me when he identified the giant’s legs in “Jack and the Beanstalk” as phallic symbols. I found out later he was also responsible for popularizing the idea that children became autistic because their mothers didn’t love them enough, which did not endear his ideas to me at all.
    I have a copy of “Women Who Run with the Wolves” kicking around the house that I really should read one of these days.

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